‘Legion’: Creator Noah Hawley on Taking FX Series Beyond X-Men

legion Noah hawley dan stevens
f. scott schafer for Variety; Location: The Langham Huntington, Pasadena

TV’s first live-action X-Men series does not have many X-Men in it. In fact, FX’s “Legion” pilot boasts only one character from the Marvel comic books about so-called mutants. There is no Magneto, no Jean Grey, no Wolverine. There is definitely no Deadpool. The word “mutant” isn’t even mentioned until halfway through the episode.

If “Legion,” which premieres Feb. 8, feels like a distant cousin to the movie franchise that has grossed almost $4.4 billion worldwide for Fox since the first “X-Men” premiered in 2000, that is by design.

The designer is Noah Hawley, the writer- showrunner who pulled off the impossible by adapting the Coen Brothers’ cult-classic film “Fargo” into a critically acclaimed television series. For his next trick, Hawley will attempt the unimaginable yet again: reinventing the superhero genre with a show about an obscure character plucked from the bowels of a franchise whose recent screen iterations have prompted whispers of fan fatigue.

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“When I took on ‘Fargo,’ I thought, ‘Well, this is just a terrible idea. Four people will watch it and they’ll hate-watch,’” Hawley says. “But that allowed me to just go for it and take the risks.”

Hawley is sitting at a Santa Monica post-production studio, overseeing sound mixing on the early episodes of his latest terrible idea. He is engaged on a micro level with his team’s work, moving moment by moment through the pilot’s climactic action sequence to determine whether there are enough gunfire effects. Sharp-witted and soft-spoken, he acknowledges good work and frames suggestions as questions. He seems like a boss you would be OK with.

“Legion” tells the story of David Haller, a diagnosed schizophrenic who learns that the delusions which plague him actually may be manifestations of a mutant superpower. In the comics, Haller is the son of X-Men founder Charles Xavier (aka Professor X). Whether that’s the case in the show is unclear. FX is selling proximity to the X-Men — the “o” in the “Legion” title encircles an “x,” creating a version of the superhero team’s logo — but Hawley downplays any connection.

“With the X-Men comics, there are a lot of alt universes, so that has allowed me some leeway,” Hawley says. “And obviously it’s a sort of origin story for David, but none of the other characters that I’ve surrounded him with are from the comics. It’s sort of an invented world.”

In a few weeks, Hawley will head to Calgary to return to another invented world of his making: “Fargo,” which will begin shooting on season three. But for the moment he’s focused on “Legion” — as focused as a guy in his situation can be.

Hawley is, by his own admission, overextended. It was “Fargo” that got him into this mess. The first season raked in 18 Emmy nominations, and the second was, by many accounts, better than its predecessor. Together, they propelled him from “that guy with two failed broadcast dramas” (“The Unusuals,” “My Generation”) to the ranks of television’s mega-showrunners.

“Fargo” was a Hail Mary thrown by MGM’s television division at a time when the just-rebooted studio was mining its film library for series spinoffs (see “Teen Wolf”). FX reached for that ball because of industry legend Warren Littlefield’s participation as an executive producer, MGM’s willingness to hand over co-production rights at a time when such a deal was still cutting-edge, and a slam-dunk treatment from Hawley, a veteran of the “Bones” writers room.

“Fargo” season one ultimately captured three Emmys. A hailstorm of opportunities followed, and Hawley said no to few of them.

“There’s a freelance muscle that gets developed when you’re hustling,” Hawley says. And every day he was hustling. “I didn’t realize that my status had changed, and this opportunity came my way and it was very exciting, but there was still that part of me that instinctively was saying, ‘Well, this is great, because when this other thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to be able to focus on this thing.’”

Unfortunately for Hawley, everything worked out. In addition to continuing “Fargo,” he’s developing a series for FX based on Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”; adapting his own novel, “Before the Fall,” released last May, into a screenplay for Sony; and gearing up for his feature-film directing debut on writer Joe Greenberg’s “Man Alive” for Fox. He has also committed to write more books for Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group.

What “Legion” offers that none of those projects do is the chance to play with established superhero properties adored by millions. But Hawley seems less interested in that than in how David Haller’s character allows him to play with perspective and aesthetic. If a person has been told his whole adult life that he is crazy, then told that what he thought was crazy is real, how does he perceive the world?

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“If you have a character whose experience of reality is unusual, that’s the show,” Hawley says. “You shouldn’t look at him from the subjective, normal point of view. But that brings you to a place that’s surreal, which is not something that television does. It might take dramatic risks and tell you antihero stories, but it’s very rare that it does something surreal.”

And surreal it is: The “Legion” pilot features multiple non-narrative digressions, a fantasy dance sequence, and a color palette borrowed from ’60s psychedelia. When talking about the project, Hawley references Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” more than “Uncanny X-Men.” (Rachel Keller’s love-interest character is named Syd Barrett, after the original Pink Floyd frontman whose mind was bent by LSD.) “Legion” doesn’t feel like a superhero show that skews weird. It feels like a weird show that skews superhero. It’s stylish and funny and boasts a ridiculously appealing leading man in Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey”). But it doesn’t always make sense.

“We’re used to a story in modern terms as an information delivery device,” Hawley says. “Certainly on television and even with the studio films, there’s really only one note that you get, and that’s clarity. And people will sacrifice everything for clarity. They’ll sacrifice the joke. They’ll sacrifice the moment, or the romance.”

How superhero fans will feel about the sacrifice of clarity is something FX CEO John Landgraf is soon to learn. But he’s all in.

“When you’re with a creator who wants to reinvent a genre to that radical extent, you can’t know whether the fans of that genre will love it and will follow you down the path that you’re taking them,” Landgraf says. He points to some of the network’s brand-defining efforts as successful genre-twisting experiments, such as cop drama “The Shield” and medical drama “Nip/Tuck.” He also points to the non-brand-defining ones.

“We’ve made some very fine shows — ‘Terriers’ would be an example, or ‘Lights Out’ — that, as good as they are, have not been embraced by the fans of the genres in which they took place,” Landgraf says. “I think if you’re going to make something that takes place way, way out on a ledge, on the fringes of a genre, there’s going to be that risk.”

Marvel’s evolution from work-for-hire publisher of dead-tree media to one of the most powerful forces in 21st-century filmed entertainment is a story as epic and sometimes ridiculous as the origin myths of its most famous characters. Stuck in a perpetual boom-bust cycle in the ’80s and ’90s, Marvel occasionally floated itself by selling off-screen rights to its most iconic properties at bargain-basement prices. So when the Walt Disney Co. bought the comic-book company in 2009 for $4 billion, it inherited a tangled web of agreements that had handed Spider-Man to Sony and the X-Men to Fox in near-perpetuity.

Disney did not buy Marvel because it wanted to get into the comic-book publishing game. It saw a library of intellectual property ripe to exploit — even if Marvel’s most popular characters were pawned. Validation came in 2008 with the premiere of “Iron Man.”

“In the Los Angeles Times, the front page of the Calendar section when we announced ‘Iron Man,’ the headline was ‘Marvel Brings on the B-Listers,’” Marvel Television chief Jeph Loeb says. “Iron Man” went on to defy naysayers, make critics and audiences swoon, and launch the sprawling “Avengers” film franchise. “We think the success of things like ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Jessica Jones’ proves that there are no minor characters in the Marvel Universe. There are only characters that have yet to be explored.”

The X-Men were by far Marvel’s most popular characters in the 1990s. But in the years since, they have slid down the totem pole. And in the X-Men pantheon, David Haller is a particularly minor deity. Created in 1984, the character has made only sporadic appearances in the comics.

Thus “Legion,” not unlike “Iron Man,” represents an opportunity.

“We think our audience, and then hopefully the much larger audience, will be drawn to ‘Legion’ because it is different,” Loeb says. “Because it doesn’t have someone that you may know and because it is sold in a way that is unexpected. When you live in a world of hundreds of one-hour dramas, you need to do something that will catch people’s attention.”

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If Marvel is indeed concerned about the crowded television marketplace, it found an appropriate partner in FX and Landgraf — the man who predicted two years ago that “peak TV” was just around the corner and who has made an annual ritual of breaking down the number of scripted series on both TV and streaming at the Television Critics Assn. press tour.

But the Marvel-FX relationship falls somewhere between arranged marriage and shotgun wedding. The 1993 licensing deal that gave Fox the film rights to all characters associated with the X-Men also extends to television.

“The X-Men universe is not a universe that they control,” says Landgraf. That authority lies with FX parent 21st Century Fox, which is developing a pilot for another “X-Men” series at Fox Broadcasting.

The relationship between Fox and Marvel on the feature-film side has long been contentious. (No détente, as was struck when Marvel and Sony brokered a deal to collaborate on future “Spider-Man” films, is in the offing: The Avengers and X-Men will not be teaming up any time soon.) But with former “Heroes” executive producer Loeb leading Marvel Television, and Peter Rice, who developed the first “X-Men” movie back when he was a film executive, heading Fox Networks Group, the two companies have struck a more collaborative tone on series projects.

“Frankly, they’ve been pretty bold,” Landgraf says in praise of Marvel’s TV efforts. And he notes that Marvel executives have been outspoken on “Legion” when they’ve had concerns about how the character was being handled. But not too outspoken.

“If we had been making a show based on Iron Man, they would have been more firm about what they wanted,” he says.

In “Fargo” season one, a flashback reveals how Oliver Platt’s Stavros Milos got the seed money for his supermarket empire: He found it buried in the snow on the side of a highway, its presence marked by a red windshield scraper.

The scene is a direct reference to Joel and Ethan Coen’s film “Fargo,” in which Steve Buscemi’s Carl buries $920,000 in ransom money, marking the treasure with the same red windshield scraper that later catches Stavros’ eye. It is the only connective tissue between the TV show and the movie that inspired it.

Hawley’s “Fargo” is not so much an adaptation as a story that’s similar in tone, spirit, and title to something that came before. “Legion” is much the same.

“My assignment was feeling inspired by the work and telling the story that I wanted to tell with it, as opposed to finding a run in the comics and saying, ‘Well, this is issue 320 through 328,’” Hawley says. “Because of what you can do in TV that you don’t have time to do in a feature, there’s something really fascinating you can explore about being an alternately abled person, and the idea of what’s it really like to be that person.”

It was the job of Stevens (also on the big screen this year in “Beauty and the Beast”) to be that person. Hawley wanted to help with the task, so he created a 160-track playlist for Stevens to listen to as he found his way around Haller’s fractured mind.

“It includes everything from experimental French sound design, people screaming into bins and such, to Pink Floyd and everything in between,” Stevens says. “You listen to this mad arrangement of stuff, and I sort of got what he meant.”

But Stevens rejects the idea that Hawley is trying to subvert the superhero genre.

“‘Subvert’ is a funny word, because it implies that something needs to be uprooted in the mainframe, which I don’t think is true,” he says. “I just think the nature of ‘Legion’ is such that it’s quite bonkers.”

A 160-track playlist does not create itself. Compiling one takes time, which Hawley has little of. And yet he made one, just as he directed the pilot for “Legion” when he didn’t have to, just as he directed the first episode of “Fargo” season three when he didn’t have to.

At one point last year, Hawley was simultaneously running three writers’ rooms in the same building — one for “Legion” season one, one for “Fargo” season three, and one for “Cat’s Cradle.” He would walk from one to another, sit down, and wait 20 minutes before joining in — mentally scrubbing the previous room from his mind, acclimating himself to the new one. He sometimes hits a breaking point.

“I’m on a lot of airplanes,” Hawley says. “There are definitely times when I just vapor-lock. I’m on the plane, and I have so much to do, I just don’t know what to do. It never lasts for very long. It might last for the flight.”

The people invested in Hawley have concerns about the long-term effects of such a workload.

“I was worried,” Landgraf admits. “He’s as prolific as anyone I’ve ever worked with — stunningly prolific. But I think even for him, he definitely had a lot of balls in the air at once.”

Hawley hopes to narrow his focus to one screen project and one book per year over the next three to five years. He’s not there yet. But he is unlikely to have another year as busy as the past one was.

Riding the “Fargo” wave, he could have handed responsibility for “Legion” to another showrunner to share the weight. But the series was, from the time he began writing it, too idiosyncratic. He couldn’t imagine handing it off.

“For better or for worse I followed up a really hard-to-execute, high-degree-of-difficulty show, ‘Fargo,’ with a show that only existed in my head, where no one else could really make it,” Hawley says. “It’s a narwhal. It’s a unicorn.”

And it might be a terrible idea — just like his last one.

“There are 500 shows on television right now,” Hawley says. “The only reason to make another one is if you think it can be the best.”